Monday, September 26, 2011

Fort Hill

Boston, 1630 - Fort Hill labeled Corn Hill at bottom.

When the Puritans settled Boston in the 1630s, there were three elevated areas on the Shawmut peninsula. Beacon 'Hill,' then a series of three peaks, Copp's Hill to the north, and Fort Hill to the south. The map above, made later but representing the area at the time of settlement, shows Fort (or Corn) hill at the edge of the harbor. With it's location along the water facing the harbor, the southern hill was a good place for a fort, and was used as such.

Fort Hill with Washington square at the peak, 1852.

As the town of Boston grew in population, the flat lands near the docks were settled first, with the slopes of the hills left mostly empty. In time, space pressures drove people up the hills, and both Beacon and Fort hills were settled by the well to do. Settlement by the well to do began in the early 19th Century, but by 1850 Irish fleeing the famine had congregated around the sides of the hill.

By the Civil War, the hill was a warren of tenements, shantys, and even holes dug into the side of the hill to house the poorest of Boston's poor. Much of the hill was given to drunkenness and crime, and was considered a disease-ridden slum. Over time, calls were made to clear the hill, level the land, and turn it over to commercial interests to serve the city's growing warehouse needs.

Fort Hill, before its removal.

Fort Hill before demolition.

Boylston school, circa 1850.

This school was to the right and behind the two views above.

Fort Hill demolition, 1871.

Work started in 1866. The first work brought Oliver street down to grade level, but the expected gravel turned out to be hard-packed earth, less valuable for land-filling projects going on around the city at the time. After a pause, the project resumed, with the former hill being used to create the new Atlantic avenue along the harbor. With the help of steam shovels, the work was completed, although the financial depression of the early 1870s slowed development of the new district. Over the next decade, the new streets were built out with exactly the warehouses and businesses they were planned for.


Fort Hill Square, contemporary with the map directly below.

Fort Hill Square, 1938.

While Boston's West End urban renewal project is now notorious in urban planning circles and in the popular mind, Boston had it's first urban renewal project almost 100 years earlier. The Irish were removed, and their homes given over to moneyed interests. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Monday, September 12, 2011

City of Immigrants, City of Churches

Scotch Presbyterian Church, Warrenton street, 1917.

Boston was a city of diversity long before the current usage of the word was coined. In the early 20th Century, Boston's diversity had a European base. In contemporary media, Boston is considered first as an Irish city, then Italian, Jewish, and 'other.' In fact, there were colonies of many nationalities in the city before assimilation and the suburbs watered them down and dispersed them away.

Portugese Catholic Church, North Bennett street, 1902.

Many of the immigrants who came to Boston were Catholics, and the Archdiocese allowed them to build their own churches and hold mass in their own languages.

Ohabei Sholom Synagogue, Union Park street, South End, 1902.

Not all of the immigrants were Catholic, and not all were Christian. There were Synagogues in the North, South and West Ends, and Roxbury as well.

Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Emerald street, 1917.

When you think of Boston immigrants, do you think of Swedes? Both of my mother's parents were Swedes, and they had other Swedish friends in the city and nearby. Although most Swedes were Lutherans in the old country, my mother's family attended a Congregational church in Jamaica Plain. There must have been enough Swedes in the South End to maintain a church for a time.

St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Union Park, 1938.

Plenty of Greeks in Boston, and indeed they still keep their identity in the city, with a group centered in Roslindale.

French Catholic Church, Isabella street, 1902.

This would be French Canadian I imagine. Canadian may be the immigrant group that gets the least respect in Boston. Canadians from the Atlantic Provinces and Quebec came to Boston for work, and were one of the largest immigrant groups of the 19th Century. Men from Nova Scotia came to this country with carpentry skills, and filled the house-building trade. French-Canadians were major contributors to the mill towns of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and settled in Boston as well.

First Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church, Ferdinand street, 1902

Not all Swedes were Lutherans, apparently.

Holy Trinity German Catholic Church, Shawmut avenue, 1918.

Germans were one of the major immigrant groups in Boston. Like many European nationalities, Germans tended to arrive in Atlantic ports and then move on to the Midwest. Some, however, stayed and settled down. Those who came from the north of Germany were mostly Protestant, and the southerns were usually Catholic. They organized social clubs and schools to maintain their language and traditions, and in the case of the Catholics, requested permission of the Archdiocese to build their own church. The building still stands in the South End, but is no longer active.

St Peter's Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, W. Fifth street, South Boston, 1910.

South Boston and Irish go together in the public mind like peanut butter and jelly, but the district was also the center of Boston's Lithuanian population. Lithuanians and Latvians both emigrated from their homes to flee the anarchy and oppression of the Russian revolutionary period. St Peter's is still an active parish.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Boston Museum

Boston Museum, 1852.

Boston Museum, Tremont street, 1888.

The Boston Museum was one of the leading theaters of 19th Century Boston. The first building was erected in 1841 at Tremont and Bromfield street, and its immediate success lead five years later to a new, larger building being constructed, again on Tremont street, this time between School street and Scollay square.

The Boston Museum was founded by Moses Kimball. Kimball first bought the New England Museum, and then transferred its contents to the new Boston Museum. The facility actually was a museum, containing stuffed birds and animals, and other natural curiousities. During the 1840s, Kimball became a friend and associate of P.T. Barnum, and often shared exhibits with him. The (in)famous Feegee Mermaid was one of these, a half-orangutan/half fish construction that had a great popularity.

Entrance Hall.

In spite of its origin as a Barnum-type curiousity showplace, the Boston Museum is best remembered as a theater. It is suggested that the facility was given the name museum to avoid the opprobrium of Purtian Boston. More likely, it truly was a museum at the beginning but over time the Museum became one of the country's leading theaters. The first American productions of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H.M.S. Pinafore occurred on the Boston Museum stage.

Moses Kimball died in 1895, and the Boston Museum closed in 1903.